The electoral set piece events of 2017 are circled in bright red on the political calendar. Will Angela Merkel hang on in German elections in the fall? Will the French elect Marine Le Pen president in late spring? And the Dutch a far-right prime minister in March?
Brussels may not be known for down-in-the-mud politics, but that is where the season begins, and well before national elections heat up.
Events playing out around the European Parliament, while worth watching in their own right, will resonate beyond its chambers.
Parliamentary game of chicken
Just a little more than two weeks into the new year, MEPs will choose their new president from, most likely, three centrist candidates: On the center right, Antonio Tajani of the European People’s Party; on the center-left, Gianni Pittella of the Socialists & Democrats; and the leader of the liberals Guy Verhofstadt who, to the surprise of tout Bruxelles, has not yet said whether his hat is in the ring or not.
For the first time in a while, it’s an open race — and a tricky one. None of the three can win without one of the others withdrawing. None of the three can get the job if the two others join forces, except if they allow the far Right to have a say, and historically, the main parties have been unwilling to do that, seeing them as detrimental to the European project. And only one of the three can save both the honor of their group and personal pride.
In this political game of chicken, the question is, who will be the first to blink? It looks like there won’t be an answer before the first round of voting on January 17. The three blocs have raised the stakes too high for a backroom deal, making the election a question of principles for the first time in a while.
That situation will require creativity from group leaders on election day. As it happens, two of the three candidates are leaders of their respective groups themselves. In other words, don’t expect a winner in the first round. This will be a fight until at least one candidate withdraws, which, given the personalities and stakes in play, could take a while.
The EPP touts the “transparent process” that made Tajani candidate for their group. The controversial Italian’s ghosts in the closet — to wit his involvement in the Dieselgate scandal and his past life as Silvio Berlusconi’s sidekick — didn’t stop his sprint to a primary win, to the surprise of many insiders and outsiders alike. By contrast, the S&D elected Pittella by decree as if the Holy Spirit had guided its members. Verhofstadt still has a way out: saying he hasn’t officially declared his candidacy but has merely been put forward by his ALDE group of liberals for the job. His voluble ego might get in the way of a quiet withdrawal.
Under parliamentary rules, to be elected president a candidate must win an absolute majority of the votes cast, which means 50 percent plus one. The European Parliament is comprised of 751 members, so 376 votes are needed to win the presidency. Currently, the EPP holds 216 seats, while the S&D has 189, the European Conservatives and Reformists have 74 and ALDE has 69. Smaller parties and non-affiliated MEPs make up the balance. Allegiances tend to break along party lines, but also nationally with Germany having 96 MEPs, followed by France with 74, and Italy and the U.K. with 73 each.
How this plays out next month will show whether Parliament’s big players prefer a stable majority built among the big groups — though that outcome will require a few to eat humble pie — to infighting among themselves. It will also show if, by coming together around a new leader, they are committed to continue to build up the Parliament as a powerful player in Brussels as in recent years. It’s easier for other power players in the EU, such as the Commission and member governments, to outmaneuver a divided and fractious chamber.
Brussels after Schulz and Juncker
The times are a-changin’ at the Parliament, as a Nobel Prize-winner once sang, meaning 2017 will be a very different, possibly even more testing year for another Brussels VIP: Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
For the past two-plus years, the Luxembourger counted on his bromance with departing Parliament President Martin Schulz to make his life easier in town. Though Juncker’s an EPP guy and Schulz a Socialist, the duo hatched an alliance based on genuine personal chemistry to ease the Commission’s agenda through the chamber. But Schulz’s bigger ambitions to pursue a career in national politics, possibly even leading the Social Democrats into battle against Merkel, leave Juncker on his own, facing a more hostile Parliament.
European elections in 2019 are two years away, but that might as well be next week for MEPs who will be seeking to make a mark on some policy initiative. Translated into European politics, that means show your independence, raise the volume and take a stand on a hallmark issue rather than compromise; especially if you’re a rapporteur on a dossier, be it meaningful or not, or a group chairman.
The most contentious matters before Brussels in 2017 are likely to include economic and fiscal policy. Socialists are set to keep pushing for an end to austerity, while the Conservatives elevate the insistence that EU countries honor fiscal rules into a founding principle. The balance between security and civil liberties is likely to emerge as yet another controversial issue, as is the long-awaited reform of the EU asylum rules, penciled into lawmakers’ agendas for 2017.
Over at the Commission, Juncker’s promise not to run for another term again in 2019 is an implicit invitation to other commissioners to start gunning for the job. So who is in play? Commission colleagues have noticed the ambition of First Vice President Frans Timmermans, a Dutch pol of the left-leaning variety. The EU is still waiting for a woman at the top of one of its organizations. Current foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is another Socialist name mentioned in the corridors. On the EPP side, former Finnish Prime Minister and current Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen comes to many lips.
Even smaller on fewer things
On matters of substance, in a year dominated by elections and political posturing, diplomats and parliamentarians expect the Commission will propose little and decide even less, especially if it affects countries in election mode. Besides the Dutch, French and Germans, the Italians — the third power in the EU, with Britain on the way out — are also possibly headed for polls in 2017.
The other big date on the EU political calendar isn’t known yet but likely one day toward the end of March. When Theresa May invokes Article 50 and gets the two-year divorce train going for the U.K. from the EU, the talks will consume more of the EU’s time, focus and resources than the EU’s leaders would have liked or originally expected.
Earlier this year, insisting that Brexit was merely a technical negotiation, the other 27 countries tried to shift the focus to the “Bratislava agenda,” a two-page plan to highlight the benefits of the Union for its citizens. The subsequent three months since Bratislava focused almost squarely on the politics of Brexit, with the summit in the Slovak capital quickly forgotten. So, too, the gala to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, which in effect created the Europe we know today, which won’t be the hoped-for fresh start for the EU of 27. At just that time, the British prime minister is supposed to file divorce papers, overshadowing the birthday party.
One silver lining for the incumbents facing elections is the pain of Brexit, for their purposes best wholly inflicted on the Albion by itself, which will remind voters in an anti-establishment frame of mind of the upsides of the current, European order.
Article 50, the legal basis of the negotiations, was drafted entirely to deter not to ease separation. It sets a strict two-year deadline, can’t be reversed and threatens to cut a member loose without any sort of transition deal. The power dynamic is clear: Britain against 27, who have repeated the same line about “no cherry picking” the good bits of EU membership in a transition arrangement.
Brussels just offered up a timely reminder that it — and not any outside, or soon-to-be outside state — determines the nature of their relationship. Earlier this month, following a 2014 referendum that called for an end to “mass immigration,” Switzerland backed off plans to impose quotas on the number of EU citizens allowed to work in the country. The alternative was to lose access to the EU single market.
In a pre-Christmas message, Juncker said last week: “The Swiss authorities and the European institutions have worked tirelessly to find a solution that would guarantee full respect for one of our founding principles: the free movement of persons. The Commission will closely monitor the implementation of this solution. 2017 could be a milestone in the development of closer relations between the European Union and Switzerland, with a view to enhancing still further the vitality of our area of freedom – of all forms of freedom – to the benefit of all our citizens.”
In other words, the EU successfully played hardball with Switzerland’s direct democracy and won. No exception allowed, not for a traditional ally, not one with a relatively important economy and a financial center, not even after a popular vote. Is London listening? For all the proclamations of its growing irrelevance, possibly soon death, Brussels is making the case that it matters as much as ever.
Florian Eder writes POLITICO‘s daily German-language column, Morgen Europa.